For Dawna Gatrost, a life-changing book—and a little help from WE—led to a passionate commitment to help alleviate the global water crisis.
A few years ago, the social studies teacher at Canyon Lake Middle School in Lake Elsinore, CA, discovered and read A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park’s bestselling novel about water scarcity and the daily rigors of life in Sudan. She immediately had an epiphany. “It was eye-opening,” she says. “Water is a basic human need, and so many people don’t have access to it. We take it for granted here.”
Partially based on a true story, the novel tells the story of Salva, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, and Nya, a young girl who walks two hours to fetch water twice a day.
For many people across the world—especially women, on whom the duty of collecting water often falls—Nya’s daily pilgrimage is all too real. According to the United Nations, the average distance women walk for water in Asia and Africa is six kilometres per day. As Dawna learned, “in South Sudan, people have to walk up to eight hours a day to get water, and even then, it’s often contaminated.”
The middle school teacher decided she wanted to help the situation. Her first step was spreading empathy and awareness by introducing her students to the novel that had such an effect on her. Then she helped launch the Humanitarian Club at the school, a group dedicated to various local and global philanthropic efforts.
Shortly after founding the Humanitarian Club, Dawna discovered WE. She was quickly enthralled with the charity’s approach to local, as well as global, social issues and signed up to participate in its service-learning program, WE Schools. Soon the Humanitarian Club was set up with educational resources and offered coaching; WE even sent a motivational speaker to the school to help get students excited about the new program.
Looking back, the educator credits the organization for the club’s evolution. She points to goal-oriented campaigns designed to expand students’ worldview while building leadership skills. “WE really keeps you on your toes,” she says. “It educates us.”
Last year, the Humanitarian Club raised $1,600 for Water for South Sudan, a nonprofit organization that provides access to clean water. Then, in March of this year, they tackled their most ambitious project yet: WE Walk for Water. A global campaign, WE Walk for Water takes its cue from WE Villages and its water pillar—one of the five pillars of WE’s international development model. Initiated to raise awareness around water scarcity and sanitation issues abroad, the campaign was the doorway to the California educator and her students raising another $9,000 for their cause in Sudan.
The fundraiser saw students paying homage to the water pilgrimage undertaken by so many people around the world. They carried large jugs of water for one mile—not a simple feat, but less arduous than what someone in Africa might face. “It was difficult,” Dawna says. “Many of the students got tired, sweaty and said their arms hurt.”
As one of many communities heavily affected by California’s recent six-year drought, Lake Elsinore is not unfamiliar with water scarcity. The community was forced to implement a water conservation plan that included measures such as prohibiting restaurants from offering water unless requested and banning the washing of sidewalks and driveways. With that in mind, the water used for Canyon Lake’s event has been saved for emergency purposes at the school.
Thinking forward to the new school year, Dawna would like to see the Humanitarian Club continue to evolve by inspiring students to delve even deeper into social advocacy by leading more WE Schools campaigns. For this educator, making a positive impact depends on helping students develop a sharp social conscience; it’s all about “seeing where we can make a difference next.”